No. 1: Fort Collins, Colo.
This outdoor lovers' paradise ranks first on this year's list of Great American Towns.
(MONEY Magazine) -- Dan Olsen's heart had been set on raising a family in Montana. But when he visited his future wife Kari's family here while the couple were in college, Dan knew he had found the place he wanted to call home. "There's a whole different sense of priority here," says Dan, now 39. "It's kind of an outdoorsy, 'take time to smell the roses' attitude. I absolutely fell in love."
An engineer, after graduation Dan found a job in Iowa but kept an ear to the ground for a position in Fort Collins. He landed one 12 years ago at Hewlett-Packard, the city's largest private employer, and now he's a business-development manager there.
Dan and Kari have three children, ages 13, 11 and 7, and couldn't be happier. "If you roll up the whole ball and call it quality of life," he says, "it's all of that and then some." Great schools, low crime, good jobs in a high-tech economy and a fantastic outdoor life make Fort Collins No. 1.
Situated 5,000 feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountains, the city offers restaurants, night life and culture, plus natural attractions like nearby Horsetooth Reservoir for boating and swimming. There are 60 miles of hiking and biking trails, and most major roads have bicycle lanes. Fort Collins grew quickly from a military outpost into the 53-square-mile area it occupies today. The place took off in the 90's as companies moved from high priced California.
During the boom years, the city eschewed tax incentives to attract businesses, choosing instead to spend money on schools and parks. Companies came anyway. Besides HP, Eastman Kodak and Agilent Technologies have a big presence here. The city is also home to Colorado State University and top-ranked Poudre Valley Hospital, which provide 10,000 jobs between them.
The tech crunch hit the area hard. The city is recovering, though it has faced budget shortfalls in recent years. "We were in double-digit growth for decades, so our costs went up, and then the economy slowed," says city manager Darin Atteberry. But Fort Collins is going ahead with two new schools for the hefty K through - 12 head count in the southern part of town. The city boasts the top ranked high school in the state, and students in the district best the state averages in all subjects at all grade levels.
Old Town, a restored historic district, hops at night. Four micro breweries provide local flavor. Denver International Airport, major pro sports events and downtown Denver are an hour or more away, but people here willingly trade proximity for peace. "Fort Collins is a healthy community," says Doug Johnson, 34, who has twin five-year-old boys. "We want that lifestyle."